“Trump Wants to Take an Axe to the Regulatory State”: Amit Narang on the Anti-Regulation Rule

Janine Jackson: As with other of his maneuvers, the intent of Donald Trump’s executive order on regulations might have been equally well-conveyed by a crayoned sign — in this case reading, “Regulations Bad.” For any new rule added, agencies are directed to, “unless prohibited by law,” identify at least two existing regulations to be repealed, and the cost of all new regulations “shall be no greater than zero.” As with other of his orders, it’s not clear that this can even be implemented without tangling various agencies in knots, and equally unclear how much that matters, since the intent can be plenty destructive on its own.

Amit Narang is regulatory policy advocate at Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. The group has just filed suit against Trump based on this order. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Amit Narang.

Amit Narang: Thank you so much for having me.

The order seems at a glance to rely on an almost cartoonish understanding of how regulation works, or why it exists, for that matter. But with reference to Public Citizen’s lawsuit around it, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer just said that that suit “presumes a lot of outcomes that are wildly inaccurate.” So I wonder how you respond to that claim, and what the grounds are for Public Citizen’s suit around this executive order.

I think that that claim by Mr. Spicer is laughable. Essentially what he’s saying is that, oh no, this executive order is not going to operate the way we intend it to operate, which is to make it almost impossible to regulate in areas that are key to protecting the public’s health, safety, making sure Wall Street is accountable to the public and not acting recklessly, environmental protections. And let’s be clear, President Trump has made claims that he wants to get rid of 75 percent of existing regulations, without specifying, of course, which ones those are, but he can’t do that without touching bedrock, fundamental protections that the public takes for granted, frankly, and that Congress has produced legislation to protect, that is some of the most popular legislation that Congress has ever produced, stuff like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Dodd-Frank Act.

If that is the case, that Trump wants to essentially take an axe to the regulatory state, then it’s ridiculous for Mr. Spicer to say that the way we are reading the executive order, which is that agencies will be simply unable to regulate in critical areas across the board, somehow that is a problematic reading of the EO. It’s exactly what the EO intends, and we are taking it very seriously. I assume the administration is as well. I wonder where these remarks are coming from from Mr. Spicer.

As with many things Trump, one wants to both say, you know, what is this nuttiness? and then also to say, well, it doesn’t come out of nowhere. When Donald Trump talks about there being 72 rules for something, he’s trading on an existing idea, that there are lots of dusty, arcane regulations that businesses nevertheless have to comply with, which if they didn’t, those businesses would be providing jobs and national prosperity. This is kind of taking it to the Nth degree. But, bigger picture, how do we argue back against that general idea?

So that general idea, as you’re saying, is false, that regulations somehow cost the economy; in fact, if anything is true, it’s the opposite. And we saw that with the Wall Street crash. Massive deregulation of Wall Street led to $14 to $22 trillion in lost wealth to this country. That was average Americans, mostly, bearing those losses and losing their homes, okay? To be clear, regulation protects jobs, it protects our economy. Now, of course, big businesses and corporate America and conservatives that are ideologically opposed to regulation want to paint this picture, which is completely a false picture.

With respect to the presumption underlying this executive order, that there are tons of old regulations that serve no purpose, that are all dusty and laying around and can be easily repealed, and of course, since they serve no purpose, they must be costing corporate America a lot of money — that’s a little bit of sarcasm; I don’t know how they reconcile that — but even that presumption is false.

Why? Because President Obama initiated in 2011 what’s called regulatory retrospective review process, where he asked agencies to look at the rules that they had on their books and see if, in fact, there were any of these old regulations that really weren’t serving any purpose, that would be able to be repealed without harming the public. And they did find some. They didn’t find that many, and frankly, they didn’t come anywhere close to pleasing corporate America with this initiative. But in any case, they did find some, and they did repeal them.

And this is a real problem for the Trump administration’s implementation of this executive order. Because under the executive order, in order for agencies to put out new regulations — let’s say, updated lead standards in drinking water, which is not a hypothetical; the EPA’s supposed to do that in 2017 — in order for the EPA to do that, they have to find a regulation that doesn’t serve any purpose, that’s just sitting on the books, that’s costing the energy industry money, to get rid of. Well, if those regulations have already been identified by the Obama administration and have already been repealed, what are they going to turn to?

Then we start talking about regulations that absolutely still serve a purpose, that still protect the public — say, getting mercury out of the water, essentially, by requiring power plants to not spew mercury out when they spew out emissions that eventually fall into the water that then makes its way into the food that we eat. Are we going to sacrifice mercury regulations in order to then regulate lead in drinking water?

I’m constantly amused by claims from the Trump administration and other conservatives that they aren’t against regulation. And yet, at every step, they’re trying to stop any regulation that the EPA does to enforce the Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act or to combat climate change. And, frankly, that happens across agencies, when it comes to public health and safety.

I just want to draw out one point which I think doesn’t get a lot of attention, which is that there’s a substrain, isn’t there, of this “regulations vs. jobs” argument, that says that people of color in particular should be resentful of red tape that’s impeding their advancement somehow. I wonder how you address that idea in particular, that for some reason regulations pose a particular harm for poor people and people of color?

So the theory, just to give it its due in terms of explaining it, is that because regulation imposes costs on consumer products, imposes costs on electricity prices — now, that’s them saying it, not me, but let’s just take it as a plausible hypothetical — because consumers bear those costs of regulations, it hits the poor — and thus, I presume the assumption is, minorities — harder than it hits wealthy Americans.

Now, I don’t believe that is the case. Public Citizen has shown in report after report that climate change regulations do not result in increased electricity prices in any state in this country. In fact, they will result in reduced energy prices, because of the energy efficiency measures that are forced through regulatory action on climate change. But these are corporate lobbyshop–driven studies, and so of course they can show what they want to show. The truth is that, as I mentioned, a lack of regulation hits the poor and the vulnerable the hardest. This is just in terms of the pocketbook. The Obama administration successfully put out a regulation near the end of the term to increase overtime pay. That will absolutely help the poor in this country, poor workers in this country.

And women as well, yeah.

Environmental justice measures will help those urban areas where the dirtiest power production facilities are inevitably located. And then, moving beyond that, regulation has been critical to combating discrimination, and that has been a direct benefit to minorities in this country. So this is absolutely a false narrative that really doesn’t reflect the lived reality of the poor and minorities in this country.

I don’t think I was the only one who was dismayed to see a New York Times story headlined “Scott Pruitt Is Seen Cutting the EPA With a Scalpel, Not a Cleaver.” I mean, you got the substance, that Pruitt was expected to reduce the EPA’s effectiveness, perhaps to near meaninglessness. But you still felt like you were somehow supposed to be pleased that he was a “surgeon, not a butcher,” who “knows the legal intricacies of environmental regulation — and deregulation.” Now, I’m not saying every headline should be “Run for Your Life,” but this seemed a little bit like misplaced emphasis. What kinds of reporting would be helpful — you can respond to that, of course — but also, what kinds of reporting would be helpful in conveying the set of issues at stake here?

So I agree, that’s disappointing that Scott Pruitt is being represented in that way. He is a potential EPA head that simply doesn’t believe in a federal role for regulating the environment, this despite the fact that environmental issues of course cross state boundaries. Clean water is not something that is just related to one state; dirty water passes state lines, just like with air pollution. And, of course, climate change is the biggest threat, and that is not something that is a state-level threat; that’s a federal threat, that’s a global threat.

I think what we need in terms of reporting is far more skepticism towards putting in place individuals that head these agencies that fundamentally disagree with the mission of those agencies. And then, beyond that, to the extent that they are citing what’s viewed as statistics, or some kind of grounding in basis for their anti-regulatory or deregulatory measures, those have to be vetted far more carefully. Industry and industry lobbyists in DC get away with so much when it comes to what they claim to be studies and reports, that only look at the economic costs of regulation to their clients, to their industries, and never look at the benefits of regulations, the very real benefits, but the less tangible benefits when it comes to clean air, clean water, a safe financial system that doesn’t implode, safe food, anti-discrimination measures.

I think we’re going to see now, just like with Obamacare and the attempt to repeal Obamacare, now all of a sudden people realize, oh, this is a very important law that gives us tangible benefits. The same thing is going to happen in the regulatory space, and I really think that journalists need to point out exactly what’s at stake and exactly what people will be losing as the Trump administration seeks to repeal all sorts of Obama-era regulations, and potentially even older regulations, that absolutely benefit the public greatly.

We’ve been speaking with Amit Narang. He’s regulatory policy advocate at Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. You can follow their work, including their lawsuit against Donald Trump, online at Citizen.org. Amit Narang, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

My pleasure. Any time.